Being a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have studied marriage and relationships for a long time trying to understand why some last and others do not. I have studied experts like the Gottmans and Sue Johnson(EFT) and gone through training like Prepare-Enrich. I have looked at marriages I know and studied the marriages of people in the media. There are so many theories and formulas that people use and then there are societal norms that people ascribe to without any basis in fact or theory and both are used for people to predict if relationships are going to "make it" or not. After lots of learning, studying, and lots of work with couples over the years, I think I have an understanding of what makes a relationship work. I really think it all comes down to Character and Commitment. If you are a person of character and commitment and you find someone with character and commitment, the relationship is destined for success. I have seen people make it through the pain of an affair and couples that become closer through chronic illness and cancer, but on the other side I see couples just decide to be done with each other or move on to a new relationship with less to no apparent stressors to bring it about. WHY? It is all about who the people are and what they signed up for. If a relationship has the two Cs they can make it through anything. Success isn't found in living together before marriage(sorry, that one has never made sense to me), how long you date before you get married, having the same beliefs in the main categories, or the same or opposite personalities. Success isn't found in finding a person that speaks your love language, because while that book(The Five Love Languages) is great, when you love your partner in a sacrificial way and you have the 2 Cs, that person will feel loved, even if the two partners express love differently. It isn't about the age that you met and get married, I have seen couples meet in high school and make it through life together and I have seen couples meet when they are older and it doesn't make it.
So, let's talk about the 2 Cs. When you have character; you are honest, respectful, kind, transparent, and have the qualities that enable you to put another person first and not do actions that are intentionally selfish and hurtful. This is not to say that the 2 Cs keep people from hurting each other, we are definitely all human, but there is a difference between an action and a pattern of behavior. When you have character, it eliminates getting your needs met by someone outside of the marriage, it eliminates lying and hiding behavior, it eliminates abusive behavior(think domestic violence and being controlling), and ultimately it eliminates the behaviors that are poison to a marriage. It is true that you can have relationships where one partner struggles with character flaws and yet when faced with the end of the relationship, I think that is when the strength of the character comes out and that person decides to change and grow. But that change is obvious and overt and not just small micro actions that imitate change behavior.
When you have commitment and divorce is not an option, it drives people to work through what would be deal-breakers for others. I am in admiration of the couples that walked into my session and have done the hard work to heal a shattered marriage. Marriages that often had no foundation to begin with and are struggling to overcome what has happened inside the marriage. The power of commitment is a strong thing, it helps you to lean toward a spouse that has wounded you in deep ways and work towards healing and resolution.
When you start a relationship with character and commitment and you have character and find a person with character and you are both committed, marriage gets to be the easy end of hard. I think that all marriages take work, but when there is a shared commitment and both choose to act in a way that honors each other, they can navigate the difficult situations life brings as a team and the challenges bring them closer, instead of dividing them.
It seems to be a constant problem that I see around me, both in my professional world and my personal world that I see people with partners who treat them terrible. There is disrespect, selfishness, a lack of effort, anger, and an overall air of being a jerk. I see people we would consider to be “nice” people, who are kind and genuinely seem to care about this other person. The other person, the designated “jerk,” is usually mean, controlling, and screams a lot if it is a female and sullen or angry, rude, and dismissive if it is a male. The person usually is not open to hearing they are the problem in the relationship and think they are fine. It doesn’t matter if their relationships are littered with dysfunction, they cannot tolerate being the problem. It is not love to be screamed at or controlled or hit and yet I see so many people who stay in those relationships. Some time ago an individual was sitting in our lobby waiting for their partner who was in session. This individual was listening to their phone and it was loud. This individual did not respond well to my requests to turn the phone volume down and ended up storming out of the office. My main thought was how someone picked that individual for a relationship and what that relationship must look like. My assessment is that a person feels that is what they deserve out of a relationship...to be in a relationship with someone with no respect for authority who tantrums when they are told no or don’t get their way. The work with that individual who is dating the loser is really to help that person improve their self-esteem and work on the negative beliefs that lend to putting up with these behaviors. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and yet so many people put up with so much less. Why? It isn’t because the other person is so amazing, it is about how the person feels internally. How little domestic violence would there be if people really understood how they should be treated. And those “losers?” They, too, don’t understand their value and worth because if they did, they wouldn’t throw tantrums and be abusive and have self-destructive behaviors. This doesn’t mean there are personality disordered people out there who are abusive(the Gottmans call them the “pitbull” and the “cobras.”), but most people are just broken and wounded and operate out of a very immature self.
The question to ask self is how does my relationship reflect how I feel about myself?
Everyone has them. They are good, bad, happy, irritated, sour, angry, etc. I have noticed that we as individuals are okay with being in a bad mood, but when others around us are in a bad mood, we feel bothered by it and often we wonder if it is our fault or if they are mad at us. This is something I have struggled with in the past, but as I have worked with clients and watched relationships and my own personal experience I have come to understanding that is wrong to expect people to only be in positive or happy moods and then when they aren’t, it is also incorrect to assume the negative moods are always about the other person. I remember the first couple years of being a step-mom and feeling worried when my teen step-daughter was in a bad mood, wondering if I was the cause of her mood. I have to chuckle at my egocentric self as teen having different moods in the space of hours or days is as predictable as the setting sun. Teens are going through such developmental and hormonal changes that they have some of the biggest mood ranges. I have heard it said “every teen is a little bipolar” which really just speaks to the range of moods and feelings they have. This worry about the moods of others can extend to partners, family members, siblings, coworkers, etc. Any place there are relationships, there is an opportunity for this.
What I have learned is that I(we) should see a range of moods and emotions as a positive. I want those around me to not be happy all the time, it means they are well-rounded emotionally and I need all them to be human and feel all things, not just the ones that I am comfortable with. This is not to say that we should put up with some actions related to negative moods such as blame or abuse. Everyone is responsible for their own moods and managing them. Everyone has bad days and it doesn’t entitle anyone to make people be receptors for those bad days and moods.
If we can accept when those around us have bad days and moods and continue to act loving, then we probably have the best chance of helping them out of it and being there to listen when they want to talk.
It is so freeing to not personalize the moods of others and just focus on being present and kind and allow other people to have a variety of feelings and moods. This is still the same even when there is conflict between two people, although I have found many worry about the moods of others when there has been no conflict. There is almost a selfish quality when we think; “what did I do? Is that person mad at me?” I tell myself and clients that none of us are that important that all the moods and feelings of another person are about us for the same reason that all our moods and feelings are not about another person, we are too self-focused at our core. We need to allow ourselves and those around us to have a variety of moods and emotions and know that all feelings and moods are okay, it is just what we do with them that matters. We do not want to send the message or teach the next generation that is not okay to have a bad mood, it is absolutely okay to have a bad mood. A bad mood just may mean that there is a separation from being in another person’s presence until they are feeling better or giving them comfort if that is what they need.
Being a trauma therapist, I have had an increasing number of sexual assaults victims that have come to me for EMDR therapy to process their trauma. And while the details vary from client to client, there are a couple themes that I have been noticing recently. The first is that most sexual assaults are not what we would define as violent assaults and most victims know the perpetrators. Now this is actually more the norm than people realize, but it is worth stating so that it starts to create a picture for what I am going to elaborate on. Secondly, none of the victims said no, all of them had the ability to leave, and none of them wanted the sexual encounter...and yet they all stayed. They were all frozen in their ability to say no or walk away. This may or may not seem unbelievable, why would anyone stay around for an assault they don’t want? While I have noticed that many victims are very trapped by their own thinking that leads to them not being able to say no in the moment, which leads to shame, the bigger factor is the perpetrator’s sense of entitlement and pushing to get what they want. This is my third theme, all the perpetrators had a sense of being owed and that them getting what they wanted sexually what was important and what the victim wanted didn’t matter. None of them checked in to make sure the victim was willing and even if the victim showed reluctance, they ignored them and continued what they were doing. All of this is terrible and is leading to a lot of pain, but what I am really left to ponder is how are we raising people who are victimizers? What in our society and households is leading to people who take advantage of others for their own gain? In regards to sex, I think that early exposure to sexual content reshapes a child’s brain in ways it is not supposed to. This includes porn or high sexualized movies/tv shows(your children should not be watching Game of Thrones, you are not the cool parent by letting them. If they aren’t old enough to be having sex, they shouldn’t be watching it). As a child’s brain is still young and developing, they have a hard time distinguishing reality from fiction. This is why children will often talk about dreams as if they really happened. So when kids watch violent video games or movies or tv, their brains hard-wire the violence like they are seeing it in person. This doesn’t mean they will all grow up to be violent, but if it is not something you want them exposes to in person, it shouldn’t be on their screens. So brain exposure is one element, but what about the mentality that people are there to be used? I think there are two pieces at play. One is the way parents train their kids to behave toward others. Is kindness taught or do kids watch parents take advantage of others for their own good? Are people objects to be used to reach their own goals and needs or is it they are to be respected and valued? I believe this goes beyond sexual objectification in our society, which happens toward men and women in different ways, and is really damaging to the way we look at and treat others. People can be beautiful and have value in looks, but their true value lies on the inside and that is what people should be teaching their kids. The second piece is that I think some people are wired to be users of others. I think this occurs on a variety of levels and, to some extent, we all are looking to get something out of relationships, but I believe some people go above and become users and take advantage of people for their own purposes. There may be some people who are looking to get a need met and go about it poorly(this does not include to a sexual assault/domestic violence level, that is never about getting a need met. It is about power and control and abuse), but I think a lot of people become so twisted they truly do not think there is anything wrong with what they are doing. That is very dangerous and leads to victimization of others.
So what is the point of all this? Parents teach your kids to be respectful of others and to give more than they get from others(without being a doormat or pleaser). Don’t expose them too early to the things you wouldn’t want them to see in person, i.e. violence, sex, etc. Teach your kids the power of their own voice to stand up and say no and sometimes that means you listen to them respectfully tell you how you messed up as a parent or what rule they don’t like. Listen to the hurt that those around us want to share. Examine your own goals in relationships, is it for what you can get out of them or what you can contribute to them?
And since we are talking sexual assault, not only does no mean no, but unless you are asking and get a confident yes, don’t do it!
-Naomi Cooper Martin, LMFT